COLD SPRING, N.Y. — Adrian Nivola remembers the long hours spent in the studio of his grandfather, Costantino Nivola, during the 1980s, watching the artist capture the warm embrace of a mother in a wood sculpture as the country singer Tammy Wynette crooned over the stereo.
The music and the man came rushing back into focus earlier this year as he went to work on nearly two dozen previously unseen sculptures from his grandfather’s studio that were cast from wet sand into the shapes of animals, people and abstract natural forms. Adrian cleaned them of mold and mildew for the exhibition currently on view at Magazzino Italian Art, a museum of postwar and contemporary work in the Hudson Valley.
“Nivola: Sandscapes,” on view through Jan. 10, represents a family’s effort to raise the profile of their patriarch, a forgotten proponent of modernism who was as comfortable collaborating with the architect Le Corbusier as he was hobnobbing with celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. The exhibition celebrates the artist’s pioneering sand-casting technique, which required Nivola to carve into wet sand and fill its cavity with cement or plaster. It was a cheap, efficient method for producing large sculptural reliefs, which he installed on buildings across the country.
“This is the story of an Italian refugee who made America his home, finding kindred spirits among a community of artists and architects,” said Teresa Kittler, the exhibition’s curator, who recounted how the Sardinian artist fled fascism in 1939, arriving in New York and embedding himself in the city’s cultural scene.
From his home in Long Island, Nivola would frequently host parties that included close friends like the artists Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. While his peers explored the parameters of Abstract Expressionism, Nivola elaborated on the traditions of Mediterranean sculpture with cuboid cutouts in cement, humanoid figures reminiscent of his Sardinian neighbors and a constellation of prehistoric symbols.
Nivola became an outlier of the art historical narrative du jour — neither a strict Modernist nor an Abstract Expressionist like de Kooning, Pollock or “second-generation” New York School painters — pushing his reputation into obscurity after his death in 1988. And although he never received a major retrospective in the United States, evidence of his talents exists in dozens of public art installations in schools, government buildings and public housing developments across the country. An exhibition at Cooper Union last year discussed many of those projects, but some of those works have become endangered. In March, the New York City Housing Authority removed some of his horse sculptures from a property during construction, raising the importance of the Magazzino exhibition.
“It was hard to process because I grew up with maquettes of those horse sculptures,” said Adrian Nivola, a painter and sculptor. “To see them hacked off at the legs was just awful, but the silver lining is that the controversy has drawn more attention to my grandfather’s work.”
For more than 30 years, preservationists have criticized the city for what they see as neglect of Nivola’s public artworks. (Carl Stein, an architect consulting on the damaged horse sculptures, said there is a plan to restore the statues to their original positions at the Nycha property.) Other sculptures, which the artist donated to friends and institutions, have been lost.
While researching for their exhibition, the curators at Magazzino unearthed one such sculpture, a 1953 maquette for the Olivetti Showroom on Fifth Avenue. The design, which features a procession of hieroglyphic gods and decorative patterns, was found in the storage facilities of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where it had been since its donation in 1974.
“It’s a fabulous example of Nivola’s style,” said Kittler, who added that the maquette was just one example of how the artist continually adjusted his designs, finding a balance between futuristic Cubist figures and ancient Sardinian modes of abstraction. “He had a very democratic idea of what art should be and was not really precious about his work.”
For the artist’s daughter, Claire Nivola, touring the Magazzino exhibition was a long-awaited reunion with the art of her father, whose lessons in the studio helped inspire her career as a children’s book illustrator and author.
“He never let me use an eraser when I was a kid drawing, because he didn’t want me to become a perfectionist,” she recalled. “He had a childlike joy in life; everything we did together felt like a mix of work and play.”
Through Jan. 10, 2022 at Magazzino Italian Art, 2700 U.S. 9, Cold Spring, N.Y. 845- 666-7202; magazzino.art.
Additional sandstone sculptures by Nivola
Through June 30 at Eric Firestone Gallery, 4 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, N.Y. 631-604-2386; ericfirestonegallery.com.